It is bad form to pose a question that is almost as long as the job candidate's presentation, so for once I followed my self-imposed mandate: shut up and listen. The presentation on Internet art had been very interesting — thought-provoking even, as evidenced by the fact that more words than doodles adorned the open page of my trusty notebook. Problem was that few if any of the notations were of the "ascertain the suitability of the candidate," variety. They were all more skewed to the "nature of art in the world and the place of the Internet in that dialogue" end of the spectrum. My colleagues would not be pleased were I to trot them out at the end of a meeting that had already passed “quittin’ time.” I had already tossed out one brief question, which was swiftly ignored in favor of more formal communication scholarship methodological, theoretical and bibliographic issues. I started a new doodle.
And here's what I was thinking as I doodled:
You talked about an Internet art show where one of the formal curatorial criteria was to have no criteria, in that no submissions would be rejected. Takes me back to days when my daughters swam for the Faculty Club in the Triangle Swim Association. Everybody swam, everybody got a ribbon. No swimmer's efforts would be rejected. As a parent I understood that the dominant orthodoxy of the time was "everybody wins." I could appreciate that, but it muddied the previous clarity of a more hierarchical, though admittedly less friendly, system of the blue ribbon is first, the red is second and the white is third. If you didn't get one, well, swim faster next time. Tough swimming love, but at least clear. “Ribbons for all!” was more confusing. I remember that when my older daughter was swimming in the "six-and-under" group, she decided it was really important to get a ribbon of every color. She had every color but the cool black one with the gold letters. How do you tell a 5-year-old, "Well, honey, to get that ribbon you have to be last. So go out there and do your worst!"
An art show in which there are no rejections injects similar confusion into the scenario. I can sympathize with the idea of breaking the bounds of the old "beaux arts salon" mentality in order to free up space for new methods of expression. But that same lack of criteria almost demands abuse. I mean, if you publicly declare that anything will be accepted, you are just asking folks to see if you really mean anything. You are begging people to foreground the "con" in contemporary art. “Let's see if they’ll accept this!” And we have all been to brick and mortar shows where yes, they did. Still, one thing about the Internet is that there are no walls on the gallery; that space is in many ways quite unlimited, so perhaps it is fine to give everyone a ribbon — as long as one is willing to accept the fact that the ribbon has no meaning.
There are probably as many different definitions of art as there are artists and art critics. The Internet seems to be most amenable to what I have thought of as "therapeutic art." Therapeutic art is art done primarily for the benefit of the artist. Therapeutic art is to the artist what the gym is to most people. Most folks go to the gym and work out because it makes them feel good — either physically when the endorphins kick in, or the more emotional and intellectual pleasure of knowing you are doing something "healthy." Most folks are not professional athletes who go to the gym to condition themselves to better perform the physical demands of their job, they go to the gym to feel good. The same is true of therapeutic art — it is a balm, it calms us amid life's ragged race.
The Internet art discussed in the presentation — often incredibly complex, intense effort and energy by thousands of people resulting in "products" that were often the fleeting or ephemeral manifestation of "process" — seems to have a strong therapeutic component. The repetitive attention to detail resulting in complex patterns seen in this type of Internet art is more akin to quilting than say, painting or sculpting. Those art forms are often defined by a jerky process, start and flow, stop and stare, trial and error enacted in the isolation of a studio. The analogy of Internet art to quilting fits even more snugly if we consider a quilting bee, when a group of artists in direct communication with one another work to create a communal work.
I tend to see quilting bee, therapeutic, art as different from what I think of as transcendent and/or definitional art. Transcendent definitional art has more to do with the definition of the discrete self that transcends the characteristics of the group. In this type of work the artist seeks an expression of an evolving or established singular self. The value in the creation of this type of art lies in the simultaneous expression of, and the physical crystallization of, the self in the artifact. That assertion obviously runs counter to the notion in general semantics that the word is not the thing. To a certain degree I am asserting that the creation is the creator, or at least has a holographic relationship to its creator in that he or she can be revisualized through the artifact. I went to see the recent excellent exhibit of Rembrandt's works at NCMA, here in Raleigh. Since his death in October of 1669, Rembrandt has been his paintings. In the absence of the artist, the artifact becomes the primary manifestation of the self. And, of course, therein lies a threat, a danger in the fragility of the artifact. To the extent that the creation can be physically destroyed, so a portion of the expressed self is placed at risk.
Internet art, or at least art contained by the Internet, can be both advantaged and disadvantaged by its electronic home.
In therapeutic art the Internet offers the advantage of a seemingly infinite "quilting table." Millions of people can pull up a chair, stick in a needle and add their swatch to the pattern. However, there are risks attached to mistaking this therapeutic art for transcendent or definitional art. One can certainly find balm in the affirming shared activity of thousands — but these actions can also bury the uniqueness of the self in the complexity of massively networked activities. In its darker moments, networked art can feel more like the group-mind throbbing of a beehive, rather than the cozy comfort of a quilting bee.
Obviously, the throbbing of the hive also engenders the communal power that is often germane to political art. And hence the Internet proves fertile ground for activists who wish to create group artifacts that espouse particular political perspectives. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to admit that the one idea that alienates me from many of the current dominant trends in thinking about the relationship between the Internet and art is that I think the phrase “political art” is an oxymoron. Naturally one can discern political themes in artifacts, but when one starts a work with the objective of asserting a particular political perspective then one is doing public relations, or marketing, or good old fashioned “politikin." You can produce great music, powerful images, and memorable moments doing politics, but since the message is predetermined by policy, I have trouble seeing it as art, which remember, I define as an exercise is self-exploration and definition.
For that kind of transcendent definitional art, the Internet can offer safe harbor for the artifact. A lot of sticky issues lie behind that simple sentence. They all stem from my "anti-semantic" assertion that the artifact is the artist. The question is this: To what extent is a facsimile of the artifact really the artifact? Much of my own art is, at least in part, digital. Drawings and/or photographs are scanned into Photoshop, are digitally manipulated in that environment, and then printed out — sometimes repeatedly — on different media. I would assert that subsequent iterations of those files could produce an artifact that would be identical, and hence the same thing as, any other output of the file. One could make commercial differentiations based on signature, chronological order, etc., but in terms of the artifact being the artist, the Internet could offer an artifact better "security through "replicability" than any museum vault.
For artifacts created non-digitally the case initially seems less clear. Still, when we consider sculpture, music, paintings, etc., we enter an arena where, if we cannot already create functionally identical replicas, we will soon have that capability. Differentiating between different castings from the same mold was an arcane debate in the 1900s. It will become functionally meaningless as our ability to do 3D rendering from either digitally created files or digital files created from scans of three-dimensional objects comes of age. I recently read of a woman whose entire lower jaw had been rendered in 3D with a computer “printing” technique called “laser melting where layers of a metallic powder are built up and fused together with a laser.” When the jaw was implanted, the patient could talk, chew and breathe with an ease long absent from her life. Thus could Michelangelo's David be converted to a series of 1s and 0s or perhaps qubits that will allow for the creation of perfect replicas of any size, texture and color, including ones exactly matching the “original.” Seems to blur that entire notion of “the original,” not?
True, the idea of "Hey! Run me off another David!" makes me a little queasy. And I can envision an entertainment conglomerate buying up the rights to the David and selling "personalized copies" with "a true-to-life rendering of your very own face." Yeech. I am still a tad too attached to the idea of "the hand of the master." If the artifact is the artist, then — ethically and artistically — the replicated artifact must remain true to that which the artist created. When we step off that path we run the risk of bumping into the Stepford Wives. But in the final analysis, the artifact is a stimulus that triggers the firing of neurons in the mind of the individual experiencing that stimulus. To the extent that the replication duplicates that pattern of stimuli, then I think we can assume that the recreated artifact recreates the artist.
No, no. You do not want to go there. You do not want to start down the "Well, if what we are really looking for is ‘neurons firing a specific pattern’ why don't we just … " road. Why? Because identical stimuli fire neurons resulting in radically different “patterns of perception” in different people. You look at someone on the street and wonder, "Who let them walk out of the house like that?" They glanced in the mirror and thought, "Looking good!" Same stimulus, worlds of difference in "the eye of the beholder."
I strongly believe that we need to somehow interact with an actual artifact, that we cannot try to make a leap to some kind of direct neural stimulation. For me the art that strikes the deepest chord is art that, through the creation and sharing of an artifact, creates a relationship between the artist and another individual, often an unknown individual. When I was a younger man, with dreams of life on the stage still large before my eyes, it seemed important that the artifacts in which I played a part should be seen by many. Similarly, ensemble work seemed the most fulfilling — the troupe performing for the many. Not so much anymore. These days "from my head and heart to yours," seems more fitting. The feeling of, if not the reality of, an interpersonal, dyadic relationship is increasingly important to me — in my teaching, in my life, in my art. So I am interested in media containers, be they physical or digital, that are amenable to those kinds of expressions.
The Internet, as a container, is not designed specifically for art. As a matter of fact the Internet is perhaps the most flexible, least content-specific container yet devised. If it has a "content preference" it is only the one that we bring to it. Currently people who self-identify as artists seem fascinated by the nooks and crannies of the Internet container that are new to us: the ability to display an artifact to, and receive feedback from, large numbers of individuals. We are also intrigued with the ability to involve large numbers of individuals in an Internet process that "feels" expressive, the ephemeral nature of the "artifact" notwithstanding. Those are certainly legitimate expressive uses of the container. But, they are not the ones that attract me.
Art situated in electronic social networks — either unique networks created for an expression or commercial entities like Facebook employed for an expressive project — are, for me, too reminiscent of middle school cafeterias. They are spaces that, under the guise of sociability and inclusion, are actually more prone to the public competition and posturing for which at least the largest social network was originally intended. No doubt interesting work will grow in those spaces. However, another positive aspect of this flexible container that we currently call the Internet, is that we are free to walk away from the areas in it that have no appeal. So, I choose to stroll away from the cafeteria that boldly hangs out the sign: "Home of Internet Art" and seek greener pastures elsewhere.
And it just so happened that this morning I chanced upon a space in the container that I found far more appealing: vipartfair.com. It appears to be the Internet equivalent of a huge art fair in a major city: lots of artists displaying their artifacts in virtual booths. Nobody implying I need to "like" them. Just the "stuff,” and I browse at my leisure. The interface is rich, but needs some getting used to. Still, it seems quite well done — "grown-up," if that makes sense. Nobody is rushing around, hollering and posturing. Nothing "pops up" or "rolls over." Despite a wildly eclectic collection of artists, the “fair” has that "touch of calm and insight" that I associate with transcendent definitional art. No doubt others would find it tiresome. There are obviously some contemporary works mixed in with the interesting pieces, but all in all, an intriguing show. However I note, with some dismay, that the exhibit "closes" tomorrow. I suppose that artists in the new container will often mold the container to retain not only the form, but also the assumptions of older containers. I might like it. I'm not sure. It seems that "closing" the fair on a specific day reduces the "cheapening effect" that accompanies the convenience of 24/7 accessibility to everything. Besides, when I signed up to enter the fair the curators assured me that I would receive notice of, and access to, future fairs. So I assume more of the art I like awaits me.
So here we are, back in the eye of the beholder, in the Internet of the user, in the art of the moment. There was a time when I would have felt the need to close with "the proper perspective." There may be one. Still, when I think about the myriad ways in which art and the Internet may intersect, it strikes me as foolhardy to assert that I know what that "proper perspective" is. You want truth, certainty? Not here. Maybe in that cafeteria back down the hall a bit.